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The caliphate crumbles: the last days of Islamic State

IS has been reduced to a small encampment in Baghouz – a tent city where hundreds of fighters and 2,000 civilians, surrounded on all sides, wait for the inevitable end.

In Syria’s Deir Ezzor province, in the village of Soussa, I held the end of the Islamic State’s empire in the palm of my hand. It was in Hajin, on the road to Baghouz, as the last scrap of a caliphate prepared to submit finally to the ceaseless bombardment against it, that I was given a handful of IS coins.

All around, there were wide craters from coalition airstrikes, marking the rich, soft soil of the Euphrates riverbank. The smell of cordite hung in the air and the deep pits in the road were bigger and more plentiful than those that gouged the earth in Raqqa, the former de facto capital of Islamic State in Syria, and its Iraqi stronghold, the city of Mosul. Hollowed out towns and broken minarets had become a familiar sight in the long war against the black-clad fighters of IS. But the heavy brown coins were a new discovery.

The Arab tribes fighting with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) had great, dirty handfuls of them, and gave them freely to journalists at the front. On a freezing night patrol through some orchards in IS territory, the men, filthy and exhausted, carried blankets with them through the gloom of the dust stirred up by their vehicles. They looked like an army from another age.

The Sh’aytat tribe were not here for coins, but for revenge. They’ve fought on many sides in Syria’s brutal conflict and burn with resentment after IS fighters murdered hundreds of the tribe’s men and boys back in 2014. (Some of their own tribe went over to IS.) The video of the executions is more horrible but less well remembered than the videos of Western hostages being killed by Mohammed Emwazi, so-called Jihadi John from west London, at the end of 2014.

The Islamic State’s massacres in Iraq, Syria and Libya, its murders of Sunni, Shia, Christian and Yazidi people, stirred up a cauldron of resentment. That rage was made deadly by Western military help. But the Islamic State, with divisions among its foreign cabals and beset with paranoia, also suffered internal collapse.

Now, south of the village of Soussa, the Sh’aytat tribesmen moved through the night as 21st century air-power cleared their path ahead. Beside a crater as big as a duck pond a suspected IS fighter lay dead near a small pick-up truck, blown on his side. The SDF men rooted through the debris; more coins were found and shared.

It was an eerily clear night, with an almost full moon exposing the men’s advance, but IS fighters kept hidden. “They wait for the morning to counter-attack,” an SDF fighter told me.

Two hundred militia men had been killed in one such response a few days earlier, a commander said. “They attack from both sides, with just a few men, but it feels like a hundred.” More than 8,000 Kurds have died fighting IS in Syria over the last five years, and amid the ruined landscape of this part of the country you find fresh, bright graveyards to the martyrs.

Islamic State has been reduced to a small encampment in Baghouz – a tent city where hundreds of fighters and around two thousand civilians, surrounded on all sides, are waiting for the inevitable end. From a distance you can see them wandering around: the scene looks like a grim music festival, gathered to mark the end of the caliphate.

The Kurds and the Arab tribes have done the hard work of fighting on the front line, and made the biggest sacrifice in Syria, but now their partner, the United States, is in a hurry to leave. President Trump has said that he will withdraw his 2,000 troops. Trump’s 30-day timetable for departure was unrealistic and his own generals were against it, but a withdrawal seems inevitable. So, supersonic B-1B American bombers and other aircraft were working harder than ever; sometimes they struck the same target three times over in quick succession. Air strikes are up by nearly a quarter on last year.

Western air-power has devastated this part of Syria, destroying infrastructure that will take decades to be rebuilt. And still, even in the caliphate’s final days, thousands of cases of civilian casualties are yet to be investigated by the Western-led coalition. (Even those that have been examined are hardly credible – the homes and families of the victims aren’t visited by investigators.) The chaos prompted one coalition commander to break rank. In an article in the National Defence Review Colonel Francois-Regis Legrier, who has been in charge of French artillery in Syria, wrote:  “Yes, the Battle of Hajin was won, at least on the ground, but by refusing ground engagement, we unnecessarily prolonged the conflict and thus contributed to increasing the number of casualties in the population.”

 In Deir Ezzor I sat on the floor of one of the many ruined buildings with Ronnie Welat, who is a Syrian Kurdish commander on the front line. French spotters were on a nearby roof. Ronnie invited me in, but only after British special forces had left. As two radios crackled and roared, we had tea and cigarettes in what served as his operations room. “With the coalition, we have defeated Isis in many places, but Isis is an organisation that’s based on extremist ideology,” he told me. “That’s why their believers are still strong. Maybe some have been defeated, and are now trying to escape, but their sleeper cells are growing, not just here in Syria, but in Iraq… and all over the world.”

The ideology is resilient but IS’s cohesion is gone, along with its territory. It remains a threat, though a much smaller one than a few years ago.

Ronnie Welat’s point was emphasised after I left the front and drove to Hasakah, north-eastern Syria; the following day eight of Ronnie’s comrades were killed in an IS roadside bombing. This was far from the front, and many more attacks are expected when the Americans leave.

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I had never travelled so far south along the Euphrates river valley before, and the depth of Islamic State’s territory was a revelation. I’ve spent years referring to the so-called Islamic State, but here, as you travelled through village after village, for many miles through the desert, you could almost be forgiven for thinking that this was indeed another country. Deep in Deir Ezzor there are the oil wells, which according to the Western coalition once earned the group as much as $50m a month. And with that it minted coins in copper, silver and gold.

The coin I have in my hand is broad and made of copper. It’s an Islamic State 25 fils and was enough to buy some vegetables. It carries the Islamic creed, the shahada, “there is no God but God, and Muhammad is his prophet”; the same words are written on the group’s black flag. The ambitions of Islamic State were limitless.

Its fighters may have behaved like a terrifying army but the self-styled caliph, Abu Bakhr al-Baghdadi, who is still at large, also commanded battalions of bureaucrats. Serving under the black flag, the IS proto-state had ministries of health, justice and even foreign affairs. They left behind scores of documents, some revealing military secrets, but most containing a steady and neat record of alms to the poor, widows and veterans. The Baathist origins of many of its leaders helped create an Islamic State of Bureaucrats.

Black flags have always been easy to come by. But in the earlier battles, the loot went with the fighters as it still had value – even in retreat. The coins were rarely to be found. But here in the towns of Hajin, Shaafa, and Soussa, the coins are scattered alongside home-made bombs and broken suicide vests, abandoned in the dirt. They are worthless now.

It is not just coins that are turning up. The Islamic State’s acolytes, some of whom have been lost for years, are surfacing too, worn down, devalued and similarly abandoned.

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Shamima Begum, who went to Syria aged 15

In a sprawling displacement camp at al-Hawl in northern Syria, Shamima Begum shuffled into the administrator’s office. Four years ago, then just 15 years old, Begum joined her friends Amira Abase, and Kadiza Sultana, former pupils at a school in Bethnal Green, east London, to travel to Syria to join Islamic State. The girls’ flight and the hunt for them captured the world’s attention: their recruitment was a public relations coup for the caliphate, and they were spirited away, found husbands and hadn’t been seen since. They were presumed dead.

When I met Shamima Begum she had just given birth and cradled her two-day-old son, Jarrah, under her stained black abaya. She had stayed with IS until the very end, when her husband, a Dutch jihadi, Yago Riedijk, surrendered to Kurdish fighters. Their first two children had died from sickness while they lived under IS rule.

Begum offered a half-hearted apology for her endorsement of the extremist group and asked for forgiveness. When I asked if she’d celebrated the IS-inspired attack on the Ariana Grande concert in the Manchester Arena in 2017, she said, no, she was shocked by it, but offered a qualification.

“I do feel that is wrong. Innocent people did get killed,” she told me.

“It’s one thing to kill a soldier, it’s fine, it’s self-defence. But to kill people like women and children, just like the women and children in Baghouz who are being killed right now unjustly by the bombings – it’s a two-way thing really. Because women and children are being killed back in the Islamic State right now. And this is kind of retaliation. Their justification was that it was retaliation so I thought that is a fair justification,” she said.

Shamima Begum’s desire to return “home” to London has caused much anger in Britain, where there is little sympathy for her and others like her. But perhaps it is her abandonment of the Islamic State that is more important.

“No actually I don’t support them. Not really,” she told me. “There’s a lot of oppression and corruption going on in Dawlah [Islamic State]. I will admit that they do unjustly kill people. Like they don’t have the right and I don’t think they establish Islamic law properly. That’s why there are these unjust killings because they don’t establish Islamic law properly.” She said that even if IS returned, she would spurn it.

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Place of greater safety: al-Hawl refugee camp, where most arrive after fleeing IS’s last stronghold

British citizens had an outsized role in Islamic State. Belgium, France and other European countries contributed more people, but British “gangsta jihadis” helped grow its myth. But the stars of that horror show, Mohammed Emwazi and his band of murderers, are now either dead or in jail in Syria and Turkey. Their earlier claim to be enjoying a five-star jihad lifestyle would be a tough sell now.

Britain has stuck its head deep in the sands of Deir Ezzor sand, making little preparation for dealing with the remnants of the caliphate and those of its citizens who joined it. British IS fighters may be shuffled off to US prisons, but there is no plan for the growing number of British women and their children in Kurdish displacement camps and prisons. They cannot stay here, and neither should they. They are despised for the suffering they helped cause to millions of Iraqis and Syrians. Displaced Yazidi women, who were enslaved by IS, have to share camps with the wives of the IS men who raped them. One British diplomat told me, “We need political leadership and legislation to come up with a plan, but we have neither.”

The Islamic State’s ability to draw supporters from across the world – even schoolgirls – was one of its great strengths. It shocked us, but, in time even its most determined supporters became disillusioned with the coercive regime.

IS was destroyed from the outside but it also collapsed from within. We know from its literature and from the deaths of scholars in IS prisons that there was a fierce battle internally between moderates and the Takfiri hardliners (the self-righteous who consider other Muslims apostates). Tunisians, Iraqis, Syrians and “foreign” fighters were also engaged in a power struggle against one another. IS long ago lost the critical mass that held it together; the infighting, the paranoia and the everyday terror created a rot.

The Islamic State’s leadership has mostly been killed or fled – some to Idlib in north-western Syria, while some have crossed the border into Iraq. There have been no credible recent reports of sightings of Abu Bakhr al-Baghdadi. Local and Western intelligence sources believe he may be in Anbar province in Iraq, or perhaps the Palmyra desert in Syria. Those left behind are already fighting a guerrilla-style insurgency in both countries. The division and weakness that IS exploited are still there but are a known threat. And in defeat, like its coins, the caliphate has lost its lustre.

It feels like a good time to be rid of the paraphernalia and souvenirs I’ve collected over the past five years of reporting on the rise and fall of Islamic State. The black flag, given to me by an Iraqi soldier in exchange for a pair of trousers, is the size of a picnic blanket and has no place in my home. It has gone to the Imperial War Museum in London. But what to do with all those coins?

I’ve given some away to the men who were kidnapped and tortured by IS, and who have lived to give testimony against their captors. One brave and brilliant journalist received his in Paris. He got the coin on the day he attended the trial of one of the men he believes held him captive in Syria. It takes courage to look your enemy in the eye. “This was very symbolic for me. I had it in my pocket at the tribunal. It was like a trophy taken from the enemy.”

Quentin Sommerville is the BBC’s Middle East correspondent

This article appears in the 22 February 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Islamic State